I recently saw the post ‘Pretty in Pink’ on the great blog All Things Georgian. They were looking at Georgian fashion and particularly pink fashion! However, I was totally captivated by the first portrait on their list and wanted to find out more about it.
This portrait was painted when the Howes met the up and coming artist Thomas Gainsborough in the fashionable spa-town of Bath. Gainsborough painted a portrait of both Mary and her husband, these portraits helped to establish the artist. Mary Hartop was born in 1732 and married Richard Howe in 1758, the year he inherited his family’s viscounty. Howe had a successful military career and the two had three daughters together.
Gainsborough’s full-length portrait of Mary is over eight feet tall. Mary’s direct gaze is unusual in terms of contemporary female portraits. Some suggest that Gainsborough is celebrating her independence; Mary was a known landowner which was rare for women at the time.
However, it is the depiction of dress in this panting that is so stunning. X-radiography reveals that Gainsborough took endless trouble over the details of Mary’s dress; making adjustments and tweaking the image. Her dress is the height of fashion in the mid-1700s. Mary’s pale complexion and her expensive accessories also display her aristocratic status.
Mary is wearing a fine straw hat, probably imported from Italy, with a choker made from five strings of pearls around her elegant neck. I think she is also holding a pair of white gloves in her left hand. The dress itself is of pink silk with grey gaze, lace pinafore, fichu, and ruffles. Gainsborough’s rendition of these transparent materials is delicate and beautiful. A thistle in the bottom left hand corner seems to emphasis the vulnerability of these expensive fabrics, threatening to tear the material at any moment.
The background is also breath taking, though the portrait was actually painted in Gainsborough’s studio in Bath. Gainsborough favoured landscapes to portraits and this can, perhaps, be seen in treatment of the background. He has positioned Mary in front of managed countryside, perhaps a fenced in deer-park. The gathering storm clouds echo the grey of the sleeve ruffles and pinafore, whereas the sunset pinks seem to reflect the pink of the dress.
Let me know where your favourite eighteenth century fashion can be found!
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If you’re interested in seeing more of Gainsborough’s portraits click here!
‘The Characters of Kenwood: Mary, Countess Howe’, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Gwen Watkins.
‘Thomas Gainsborough: Mary, Countess of Howe c.1764’, 100 Best Pictures in London, Geoffrey Smith.